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STANDARD DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Argo remain the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures’ and no copyright infringement is intended here. All other characters and the story depicted here are mine.
NOTE: It’s a long one, so get settled, crack open a bottle of whatever beverage you prefer and enjoy! All comments and/or private perceptions concerning this tale are welcome. Hey, it’s your free time you’re spending here, so give it your best shot. Here’s hoping you have as good a time readin’ it as I did writin’ it. Love, MMG.
ONE FINAL THOUGHT: This tale owes its conception and birth to my personal Muse whose dedicated support and encouragement inspired me to derive and then complete this piece. Just proves you can lead an old horse to water and make her drink.
Xena watched the little bard spread the blinking ashes within the stone-rimmed campfire site. The precise, efficient procedure was one the girl had performed countless times before, but on this morning, the warrior sat transfixed and immobile. She saw the little blonde rest the tip of her tongue in the corner of her mouth as she concentrated on her task. The warrior took a deep breath to clear the confusion in her mind.
‘Just when did this happen?’ the warrior marveled to herself. ‘Exactly when did this person and I become so incredibly ... attached to each other?’ The leather-clad form on the large, fallen log shook her head slightly and closed her clear, blue eyes for a moment. Then she resumed her study of the small blonde kneeling at the fire site.
‘And how did it become so certain and undeniable?’ the tall woman continued to wonder. ‘A few summers ago, I wouldn’t have let anybody get this close. How did she find her way into my soul so completely?’ The warrior shook her head again, staring openly at the trim, slender form.
The bard responded quizzically to the intent stare of the woman across from her.
"What?" the bard asked, somewhat confused by the look on the warrior’s face. "What??" she asked again when she got no response to her first question.
Xena swallowed quickly, surprised herself at the unsettling effect the green eyes had on her reserve. "Nothing," she responded, lowering her eyes to the small twig she held in her fingers. She looked up at the bard again. "I was just looking at you."
Gabrielle felt a slight blush invade her face. "Uh-huh," she said, still not quite sure of her companion’s state. She let her eyes travel over the sculpted face. "Why?" she queried, more out of curiosity than anything else.
"No reason in particular," the warrior responded. "I just like looking at you," she said, smiling warmly at the verdant pools. "Is that a problem?" she asked, characteristically raising one eyebrow.
"No, of course not," the little blonde said, laughing nervously. She looked down at the lifeless ashes, still unnerved by the warrior’s continued stare. "OK, it is a little embarrassing sometimes," the girl admitted. "Like right now, for instance." The green eyes darted to meet the cobalt gaze, before returning quickly to the remnants in the circle. The slim neck betrayed the abrupt gulp that contracted the young blonde’s throat.
Turning to her companion, the bard joked, "It makes me feel like I have spinach in my teeth, or something." The warrior’s bright laugh echoed in the clearing and deepened the warm blush on the bard’s face.
"I’m sorry, my friend," the warrior said as she tossed the small twig away and rose from her seat on the large log. "I’ll try not to stare from now on," she chided. "At least, not when you’ll notice." She tousled the soft hair and walked across the campsite, deftly lifting the saddle onto the waiting mare’s back.
Gabrielle stood and crossed the clearing to stand behind the warrior. On an impulse, she wrapped her arms around the woman’s waist, pulling the sleek, muscled form to her chest. She laid her head against the sinewy back, causing a pause in her companion’s saddling activities. The warrior let the little bard enjoy the embrace for a moment, then turned to speak over her shoulder to the blonde head nestled between her shoulder blades.
"If you keep that up, we’ll never make it to Almiros by mid-day," Xena joked, waiting for the bard to react. Another moment passed before Gabrielle released the hug and the warrior turned to face the slender form. The bard hadn’t moved away; in fact, she was staring at the ground near the warrior’s boots, her hands on her hips, one leather-covered toe tracking absent circles in the dirt.
Xena leaned her head to one side, trying to focus on the gentle face. She could see the bard’s pursed lips and recognized the nervousness in the girl’s stance. She put her hand on the slim shoulder, then raised the soft chin to bring the young blonde’s eyes to meet hers.
"OK, give," the warrior coaxed. "What’s wrong? Don’t you want to go to Almiros? Are you having second thoughts about helping them?"
"No, no, nothing like that," the bard answered as she gave the slender hand under her chin a little squeeze, then took a stride away from the warrior. She stopped and turned back to her friend, her palms clasped together, fingers interlaced.
"I still want to go. I did promise Musaeus that, if he found the old scrolls, I’d help him restore them. He’s depending on me."
The warrior studied the cherished face, a bit confused at the bard’s reluctance. She watched the girl turn, walk back toward the now-dead campfire and focus her attention on the ashes contained in the circle. When the bard put a small hand to the back of her neck and rubbed the spot vigorously, the warrior recognized the gesture as the little blonde’s way of wrestling with a particularly unsettling issue. She moved a step closer to her small companion.
"Then what is it? Why are you so uncertain about this?"
Gabrielle stared at the ashes for a moment longer, then turned to her friend, a concerned frown gathered under the wheat-colored bangs.
"It’s not just restoring the scrolls, Xena. I know they’re in pretty bad shape. Musaeus told me that when we were at the Academy last year. He said he figured, even if he did manage to retrieve them from the old caves, they’d be covered with mildew and some of them would be beyond repair. They’d need to be totally transcribed again ... from the beginning."
The warrior waited for the little bard to continue. She still had not heard the reason why the bard seemed so uneasy about the upcoming trip.
"So," the tall woman said, finally giving in to her own impatience. "Why should that be a problem? You’re the perfect choice for that. No one knows the old tales in this part of the country better than you do." The warrior’s subtle grin did nothing to lighten the girl’s manner. She waited for the bard to respond. When the girl’s uneasiness did not subside, the warrior stepped next to the trim form.
"Gabrielle, what’s really bothering you?" the warrior asked, turning the bard to face her.
The girl raised her gaze to meet the piercing blue eyes of her best friend. She studied the bronze face that meant more to her than any other. The look of concern in the green pools caused the warrior’s pulse to waver as she waited for the little blonde to speak.
"Well, first of all," the bard began, "it’s a pretty big responsibility. I mean, we’ll be transcribing ... or re-transcribing scrolls that have been around for generations ... in some cases, even longer than that. They contain the very history of these people, Xena. I just don’t want to ... misinterpret something. I could be ruining something that’s very valuable, very precious. What if I--?"
"You won’t," Xena interjected firmly. "You’re too careful with that sort of thing. You won’t make any snap decisions. Trust your own judgment, Gabrielle. I do." The warrior smiled at the anxious face, then pulled the little form into a loose hug. "Just the fact that you’re so worried about it should tell you how cautious you’re going to be." She rested her chin on the soft blonde hair. "If you didn’t care so much, you wouldn’t be tormenting yourself like this. You have too much integrity to take this lightly."
The bard was quiet in the warrior’s embrace, but Xena could sense the issue had not been completely resolved. She held her friend close and waited ... again.
"You said ‘first of all’," the warrior prompted. "What else is on your mind?"
Gabrielle took a slow breath and decided to plunge ahead. The question had to be faced sooner or later.
"You," she said quietly from within the warrior’s strong arms, bracing for the response she knew would follow. Her instincts were true, as usual. She felt the warrior’s body stiffen as the comforting embrace dissolved around her. The leather-clad woman leaned back to address the small form.
"Me?" the warrior blinked, totally confused. "Did you say ‘me’?"
The bard focused on the metal armor covering the tall woman’s chest. She traced the unique patterns with one small finger. "Yes. I’m a little ... nervous about how you’ll react to Musaeus ... or rather to how Musaeus reacts to me."
Gabrielle could feel the blush cover her face as the warrior’s arms dropped away and the lean body became tense and rigid. She swallowed hard and slowly raised her eyes to meet the icy pools.
"Who is this Musaeus, anyway," Xena asked evenly. "And why would I be ... unhappy about how he ‘reacts’ to you?"
The bard swallowed again and took a tentative step back from the muscled frame. "He’s just a fellow I met at the Academy last spring ... you know when I went there to try my hand at getting in?" The blue eyes were steady on her face. The little blonde put both hands behind her and took another step back from the serious face.
She laughed nervously and gave the warrior what she hoped was a convincing smile. "I guess you could say he had a bit of a crush on me." The blue eyes hardened. "Oh, not that I encouraged anything, you understand," the bard laughed again, even more nervously than before. "But, it was kind of flattering ... a good boost for my feminine ego, so to speak." She giggled lightly, then gulped and fell silent when she saw the rippling of the warrior’s jaw.
The bard watched her tall friend closely. "He was just very ... attentive and agreeable. Really very sweet." She waited for the warrior’s stoic expression to soften.
"Is he still as ... agreeable, do you think? And so attentive?" The warrior’s tone was as cool as the look she leveled at the bard. One dark eyebrow was poised above the crystal glare.
The girl let out a shaky laugh. "Oh, I’m sure he’s found someone else to ...."
"Worship?" the warrior said sardonically. All traces of the amused boredom displayed in her manner had disappeared. There was nothing playful in the liquid voice now.
Gabrielle reacted to the disdain present in the stiff stance. "That’s exactly what I was afraid of," the bard said in a slightly irritated voice. "I knew you wouldn’t understand about Musaeus. I knew you’d think ...."
"Gabrielle, get a grip," Xena said firmly. "I’m never surprised at how many people think highly of you." A tiny, barely perceptable grin began to replace the grim expression. "I don’t doubt there are dozens of ‘young fellows’ who carry a vision of you in their hearts." The bard scoffed and raised her eyes to the trees towering above them.
Gabrielle trained a rather bored look at her tall companion. The green eyes focused on the warrior’s blue pools were twinkling despite the girl’s attempt to maintain a serious expression. The blonde head tilted toward the warrior’s somewhat nervous gaze.
"Is that why you’re afraid to go through with this? You think I’ll try to clobber him, or something?"
The bard gave her best impression of her friend’s raised-eyebrow glower. It was the chiseled face that now showed a bit of embarrassment. "I just didn’t want you to get the wrong impression, that’s all," the girl told her friend. "I don’t want to see you get upset about this whole thing."
Xena’s tall frame relaxed as she drew a deep, calming breath. She gazed lovingly at the soft face before her and gave in to the warm smile that she’d been submerging during the discussion. "OK. So now we both know," the warrior said. "I’ll be on my ‘best behavior’, so you can rest easy."
The bard’s face lit up as she responded to the warrior’s smile.
"I promise to control myself, all right?" Xena quipped, turning back to the patient mare. As she reached to secure the girth strap under the horse’s belly, she threw a triumphant gaze at the bard.
"Now we’d better get going or you won’t get to your ‘boyfriend’ until tonight."
The warrior’s normally sharp reflexes became side-tracked by the tone of the discussion; otherwise, she would certainly have sensed the approach of the small stone the bard had tossed at her rump.
Chapter One ~~~
By mid-morning, they arrived at the town of Almiros. The warrior had no sooner lowered herself to the ground when she heard an excited voice calling out the bard’s name.
"Gabrielle!" the young male shouted as he hurried toward the travelers. As Xena turned in the direction of the sound, she saw her companion being lifted up in a resounding hug and spun around by a person she assumed was the bard’s fellow scholar. She watched quietly as the girl’s delighted squeals tumbled from within the energetic embrace.
"Musaeus!" the bard shrieked. "Put me down!" The young man set the girl on her feet, then held her at arm’s length to level a bright smile at the blushing face. He stood a good head and shoulders taller than the bard, yet not quite as tall as the warrior herself. A trim, muscular form was clearly evident beneath the long, colorful tunic. Xena noticed the smattering of freckles adorning the boyish cheekbones, contrasting with the assured, masculine manner in which the young fellow carried himself.
"It’s so good to see you again," said a pleasant, resonant voice. At the same time, tight auburn curls bounced around the warm, smiling face. "I told them you’d come. I knew you would."
"Them?" the bard asked, tentatively. "Musaeus, who’s ‘them’?" Xena sensed a slight lessening of the bard’s enthusiasm at this piece of news. She trained protective eyes toward the girl’s stilted smile. It was then that she sensed the young man’s eyes on her own face.
Musaeus hadn’t noticed the tall warrior next to the great horse until now. He saw the vigilance in the icy, blue eyes when the woman looked at the small blonde. He released the bard’s waist and took a step toward the sleek, leather-clad form.
"Xena," the young man said, extending his hand. "It’s a pleasure to meet you at last."
The warrior cast a quick glance at the offered hand, then took the slender palm to acknowledge the polite greeting. She met the eager smile with a subtle grin.
"You must be Musaeus," the smooth voice said. "It’s nice to finally meet you, too." Xena threw a solicitous glance at the bard’s apprehensive expression. She swallowed the amusement that resulted from the nervousness in the girl’s open face. She released the boy’s hand and turned to gather Argo’s reins.
"I’ll let you two ‘catch up’," the tall woman said, sliding the strap of the bard’s travel bag from her shoulder. "I’ll get Argo settled and see about a room for us." She met the bard’s green gaze. "Have fun." As the warrior turned toward the stables, her progress was stopped by Musaeus’ friendly voice.
"Oh, I already made arrangements for your room," he said, looking back at the smiling bard. "I hope that was all right."
The warrior’s jaw rippled slightly.
"Just mention my name to the Innkeeper. It’s already set up."
Gabrielle favored the young man with a warm smile. "Thank you, Musaeus. That was very nice of you," she told him, laying a hand on his arm. Xena noticed he covered the small hand with his own.
"We’re very grateful, aren’t we, Xena?" The green eyes held a slight warning as they met the clear, blue gaze. The warrior’s dark eyebrow rose only a tiny degree.
"Yes,", the warrior responded evenly. "That was very nice of you." She turned again to the handsome young man. "Well, I’ll see to Argo then," she said, turning back to the bard, "and bring our gear in. OK?"
The bard’s lips pursed only minutely. The two women held each other’s gaze for another moment before the warrior led the golden mare away. Gabrielle didn’t realize she had let out a small, grateful sigh ... but Musaeus noticed it immediately.
"Nice meeting you," the young man called to the departing warrior. The bard swallowed quietly when she noticed the subtle straightening of the woman’s strong back.
The bard faced the young man again. She touched his arm affectionately and returned his warm smile. "Now, tell me, my friend," the little blonde said as they walked away together. "Who are ‘them’ and why would you have to convince them I’d come?"
Xena removed the gear and saddle from Argo’s back. She had handed over the required number of dinars to the stable owner, then led the horse into a vacant stall, politely refusing the man’s offer to tend to the mare herself. Her tense, irritated manner made the animal’s soft ears rotate questionably toward her mistress. When the warrior slipped the bridle over the soft muzzle, the horse nudged the armored chest in a sympathetic push.
The tightness in the warrior’s jaw slowly subsided as she stroked the animal’s long, smooth face. She laid her cheek against the warm hide and took a deep, calming breath. Xena stood back to gaze into the large, brown, knowing eyes and felt her own chagrin invade her expression.
"OK, girl," she told the horse softly. "You’re going to have to help me out here, all right?" Argo whinnied quietly against the warrior’s hair. "I have to try and behave like a grown-up," she confided to the mare. "I’ve got to show her that I trust her. It’s really important this time, understand?"
Argo tossed her golden head and sneezed lightly against the raven tresses. Xena smiled and rubbed the animal’s jaw. She patted the sinewy neck and hung the bridle on the rails of the stall, next to the saddle. After checking the water barrel and the fodder bin, the warrior picked up the saddlebags, the water skin and the bard’s writing satchel and left the barn, determined to behave like a grown-up.
When Xena stepped into the small tavern, the plump, bearded bartender turned a wary eye in her direction. She told herself that one day her entrance into an establishment would not result in every eye present marking the event, but she found the cynic inside her scoffing at the optimistic thought. The blue eyes scanned the room, locating all important entrances and exits, returned to the round face behind the bar and lingered on the suspicious glare. The warrior took a slow breath and moved toward the bar.
"Musaeus said to mention his name?" she began cautiously then was a little taken aback when the man’s manner changed immediately. The corpulent face broke into an open, broad expression and he favored the warrior with a friendly, although somewhat toothless, smile.
"Oh, yes,", the man said graciously. He leaned under the bar and handed over a small bundle of soft, clean material. "You and the little bard are in the last room at the end of the hall," he said, motioning toward the archway across the room with a pudgy hand. "It’s our best accommodation," he told the warrior. "Musaeus was very clear. He wanted you two to be most comfortable."
Xena looked down at the bundle in her hands, then back to the man’s bright face. "Clean towels," the man explained, his fleshy jowls bouncing as he nodded agreeably. "When you’re ready, I’ll have the girl fill the tub for you."
The warrior tried to cover her surprise as she searched in the bard’s bag for the room’s fee. When she offered the man the money, he waved her intentions off with an open hand. "No need for that," he told her. "The Elders have said that the little bard is to be the town’s guest. You too, of course, being her companion."
Xena swallowed her amusement at her identification as the bard’s ‘companion’. She dropped the dinars into the cloth satchel and gathered up the bundle of soft material.
"Thanks, but I’m sure she’ll want something to eat first." The bartender trained an expectant gaze toward the entrance to the tavern. Xena’s gaze followed his. "Oh, she’ll be along in a minute. She’s with Musaeus."
The man nodded and smiled at the bronze face again. He wiped his thick fingers with a ragged cloth and rubbed the bar with a practiced rhythm.
"Well, all the same. Just let me know," he said. "When you’re settled in, I’ll have some nice ale for you -- at the pleasure of the house, of course."
The warrior’s jaw stiffened as her internal warnings awakened. Something in the man’s solicitous manner set off an alarm. The open expression on the bronze face faded slightly.
"Look," she said to the round face. "Providing the room is one thing, but I don’t think Gabrielle expects the town to feed us, too."
The man blinked, somewhat surprised.
"She has rather determined standards about things like that."
The bartender’s thick eyebrows came together in a small, confused frown. He studied the stoic expression on the warrior’s seemingly passive face. ‘This is not a woman whose word should be questioned,’ he decided. He nodded agreeably and resumed rubbing the burnished surface of the bar.
After a moment, Xena gathered up the bundle of cloth and the rest of the travel gear and made her way through the archway leading to the sleeping rooms of the Inn. She strode down the narrow hallway toward the last room, remembering the bartender’s directions. When she came to the wide, wooden door, she shifted the equipment in her arms, lifted the latch and entered the chamber.
The bed in the corner occupied most of the area. It was a large pallet, almost twice the size of the beds they’d seen in other Inns during their travels. When she tested the mattress, she found it firm, solid and quiet. Xena dropped her cargo at the end of the brightly-colored coverlet and turned to survey the rest of the room.
Next to the bed was a small wooden table on which stood a metal candlestick holding a large, thick candle. It matched the two on the mantle above the wide, welcoming fireplace on the wall opposite the door. All three tapers were clearly new and unused. The dark eyebrows raised slightly when her eyes fell on the neat stack of wood next to the tidy hearth and the clean, well-tended grate behind the metal screen.
With her hands on her hips, the warrior pivoted to the wall opposite the bed. There she found a small, wooden chair next to another slightly larger wooden table. Running down the center of the gleaming surface was a bright scarf, its patterns matching those of the bed’s covering. In the middle of the table stood a large, wide-lipped, ceramic basin holding a deep, generous water pitcher. The warrior’s lips pursed in grudging admiration of the room’s accessories.
Xena’s gaze fell to the floor under her boots. A large, oval rug covered most of the space, reaching from the edge of the bed to the stone front of the fireplace, traveling across the room to end just in front of the wooden legs of the table and chair.
She turned again, this time to acknowledge the gentle breeze that ruffled the lacy curtains fluttering away from the open shutters of the window that winked from the wall above the headboard of the bed. It was then that she noticed the lightly pleasant aroma that wafted across the enclosure. She scanned the room and located the source of the smell; the small, silver vase that stood between the candles on the mantle held a bright bouquet of fresh, delicate flowers.
Shaking her head slowly, Xena moved to close the wide, wooden door. As she secured the panel, she noticed the three wooden pegs that had been set into the wall behind the opening, obviously intended for the hanging of long, travel garments or, in her case, for hanging up her scabbard and chakram, if she so decided.
"Quite the little arranger, aren’t you, Musaeus?" the warrior mumbled quietly. "This place must go for ten dinars a night to ‘regular customers’." As her gaze swept the room again, the golden face slowly creased in a knowing grin. "Cyrene, Innkeeper of Amphipolis would get even more."
She moved back to the bed and began to untie the lacings on one of the saddlebags. As she withdrew various items from the leather satchels, the liquid voice mused quietly.
"Well, Gabrielle, you’re finally getting the respect you deserve."
Chapter Two ~~~
Across the town square from the Inn where the warrior was unpacking stood a small, private structure. The two young bards were huddled over a wide, well-notched table in the center of the room. On the table, in random stacks and other small piles, lay a number of rolls of parchment, all displaying a myriad of conditions, from radically damaged to slightly soiled to moderate exhibitions of decay. The two attending scholars were involved in a concentrated, enveloping discussion concerning said artifacts, most of their remarks centered on which of their charges required the quickest attention and why.
Gabrielle accepted the scroll Musaeus handed her, the young face reflecting the rancid odor radiating from the mildew-covered document. She gingerly unrolled the parchment as the young man to her side carefully held down two corners with his fingers.
"By the gods," the little blonde murmured. "Some of these are really in need of help." Her green eyes scanned the stains on the manuscript spread before her. "Musaeus, these poor things ... they must have been in those old caves for thirty winters."
Musaeus watched the face of the young woman beside him with open attraction. He could see the green eyes dance with genuine interest, then soften with heart-felt concern. His eyes followed the small hand as it tenderly stroked the damaged scroll, the girl’s gentle fingers running carefully over the covered transcription.
"I told you," the young man said. "I didn’t think any of them could have survived," he continued, glancing at Gabrielle’s concerned gaze. "But, when we finally unburied them and got them here, I found that most of them could be saved. But some of them are really going to take some attention."
Gabrielle released the scroll and the bottom edge of the worn, decaying vellum crept upwards toward the secured top edge. The young blonde brushed the dirt from her hands, then stood up away from the table.
"Whew!" she wheezed, rubbing her nose with one finger. "They really fill up a room with their ‘aroma’, don’t they?" she said laughing lightly. She turned to the young man at her side. "Well, we’ll have to get some dry rags, some new parchment and lots and lots of ink." Her eyes swept the room and she noticed the other scrolls spread on the floor and draped over random pieces of furniture in the room.
"We’ll get started on them first thing tomorrow," Gabrielle told her companion. "Right now, I need to get some of the dust from the road out of my hair." She smiled widely at the young man, then found herself somewhat unnerved by his close position, literally right next to her.
Musaeus had moved closer to the young woman, taking both her hands warmly. "I’m so glad you came, Gabrielle. I knew, when you saw them and how much I need your help, that you wouldn’t let me down." He gazed adoringly into the green eyes now raised to his.
Gabrielle swallowed a bit nervously, withdrew her hands and stepped slowly to the end of the table. "Well, I gave you my word, Musaeus. I said I’d be here to help and so I am." The girl turned back toward the handsome face, her smile somewhat less steady than before. After a moment, her expression became more inquisitive.
"What did you mean when you said you told ‘them’ I’d come?" You still haven’t said who ‘they’ are." She watched as the young man’s good-natured grin faded and his face became slightly apologetic, almost contrite.
"The Elders of the Town Council are the ‘them’ I meant," Musaeus said, his tone brittle. "They don’t think these scrolls are worth the effort or the dinars it’s going to take to restore them." The young man paced angrily away from the side of the table, then turned quickly back to the bard. His face was exasperated, his manner stressful.
"In fact, I had to promise them that you would be sort of ‘overseeing’ this project to even get them to finance the restoration at all," the young scholar told the little blonde. He stepped back to her side when he saw the surprise and concern in the wide-open green eyes.
"Now you see why it was so important that you come here and help me with this."
Gabrielle stared unbelieving into the face of her bardic friend. When she could manage to draw a quick breath, she closed her mouth and put one hand on the throbbing spot at the back of her neck. She staggered back a step then turned a shocked expression toward the plaintive young man near the table.
"Musaeus, I’m no expert!" the little bard said breathlessly. "I’m just a student, like you. There’s no way I could claim to ‘take charge’ of this ... operation." Gabrielle stepped closer to the young face, now grimacing in regret.
"How could you tell these Elders such a thing, especially without telling me first!?" She spun away from the young bard, strode a few paces, then turned back to Musaeus, her soft face now showing signs of pique. "And why would they believe you, anyway?" Gabrielle asked, her eyes level on the young man’s face. "Why would telling them I’d come make such a difference in their decision?"
Musaeus lowered his eyes and rubbed absently at a spot on the table. After a long moment, he raised his eyes to the girl’s irked gaze, his mouth quirked in a weak smile.
"Because, I told them you won the contest at the Academy last spring and that you’re becoming famous because of your tales about your best friend, The Warrior Princess. They had certainly heard of her and that convinced them that your ‘expert eyes’ would justify their ... investment."
"My ... what??" Gabrielle repeated, staring into the imploring eyes of her young friend. She saw Musaeus blink and reposition the flimsy smile. After a moment, an uncontrollable giggle began to tickle the young blonde’s throat. A few seconds later, she burst out laughing, green eyes dancing in thunderous humor. The reaction was contagious; soon the young man joined in the raucous mirth.
The two youngsters enjoyed their merriment for a few minutes, then Gabrielle drew a shaky hand across her eyes and laid the other on the young man’s arm. "Oh, boy," the girl gasped. "That’s a new one." She playfully slapped at her friend’s muscled arm. "Wait’ll Xena hears that one. She’ll think we’ve both gone daft, for sure." She dissolved into hearty laughter again.
Musaeus’ smile faded slightly as he took the girl’s hand again. "Oh, don’t give me away, please, Gabrielle," he pleaded, drawing the blonde’s attention back to his face. "If the Elders find out the truth, they’ll sweep these scrolls into the nearest garbage heap and write the whole thing off as wasted time."
Gabrielle’s laughter dissolved as she studied the young man’s plaintive expression. The request in the soft, brown eyes appealed to her gentle heart. She took a deep breath and raised her chin a bit higher. She patted the young man’s arm.
"OK, Musaeus," she told him. "If it means getting these scrolls restored, I guess a little fib won’t hurt anything. I’ll keep your secret," the girl said quietly. ‘Except, how do I do that with Xena?’ she asked herself nervously. ‘I sure hope I can pull this off.’
Chapter Three ~~~
Gabrielle’s eyes found the warrior’s the moment the bard entered the tavern. Her leather-clad friend sat in her usual ‘preferred seat’, at the back of the room, leaning against a protective wall. On the table in front of her, Gabrielle recognized a tankard of ale.
The girl crossed the room, sat down on the bench facing her friend, and deposited her staff on the floor under the table. The bronze face softened as the warrior saw the excitement radiating from her young friend’s bright face.
"So," the warrior said to the shining green eyes. "You and Musaeus all set?" The stoic expression broke slightly as the bard leaned forward to share the details of the upcoming project.
"There are a couple dozen scrolls that need work," the bard gushed. "Some of them are really in trouble, but I think we can read them enough to get the tales written out on new parchment.
The warrior watched the girl’s face, as always, warmly impressed by the enthusiasm she found in the bard’s honest enjoyment of her chosen vocation. It was becoming less of a surprise to the tall woman that the bard’s heartfelt delight engendered her own, in a nearly equal capacity. She found herself smiling back at the little blonde’s wide grin, grateful again for the cherished closeness with this extraordinary young woman.
"There’s just one thing, tho’," the bard said, her smile fading only a minute degree. The warrior’s senses twitched when she read the reluctance in the girl’s open face.
"What’s that?" Xena asked, focusing clearly on the bard’s green eyes.
"Well," the girl began. "I think it might take longer than the few days I thought when I first told you about this. Some of the scrolls are so bad off that ..."
The warrior raised a slender hand and the girl’s excited chatter ended as the deep, blue gaze captured hers. "It’s all right," Xena said, her grin returning. "Take your time. There’s no problem. We don’t have to be in Kerkira until the next moon, so you have plenty of time to ... do whatever you have to do."
The girl’s smile brightened once more. "You’re the best ‘best friend’ anyone could ever have," she told the warrior. The crystal blue eyes softened as they met the verdant gaze. The bard reached across the table and clasped the tall woman’s slender hand. "We should be finished by then. We’ll still get to Kerkira by the beginning of the Solstice, I promise."
A short moment of silence fell on the two women seated at the isolated table. Then the warrior swallowed around the closeness in her throat. She pulled her hand from beneath the bard’s and motioned toward the bartender with her chin.
"They serve a great venison stew here, I’m told," she said, raising the tankard to her lips. "Are you famished, as usual?" she quipped at the bard’s grin. The girl returned a teasing smile to the warrior’s smirk and waved to get the attention of the young waitress. When she turned back to her friend, she saw a trace of another brand of concern in the golden countenance.
"What?" the bard asked, searching the blue pools. "Something wrong?"
Xena swallowed the mouthful of ale and glanced at the approaching waitress. The bard turned quickly to the woman and said, "Venison stew, please. Two bowls. And I’d like some cider, too, if you have any." The redheaded girl nodded and left the side of the table. When the bard faced her companion again, the questioning expression on the girl’s face prompted the tall woman to respond.
"When I tried to pay for our room, the bartender wouldn’t accept payment." She waited while the bard reacted to the surprising news. "He told me that the Elders had decided that you and your ... companion," as expected, the bard’s eyebrows disappeared under her blonde bangs. " ... were to be the ‘town’s guests’," the warrior finished. She calmly raised the tankard again to hide the pronounced smirk now even more evident on her lips.
Gabrielle stared at her friend’s amused expression. After a moment, the waitress returned carrying a tray with their food and the mug of cider the bard had requested. The woman placed a bowl in front of each of them, then deposited a cloth napkin and a spoon beside the bowls. As she placed a small basket of warm bread between the two women, she smiled shyly at the bard and left the table again.
The bard focused on the stew, then raised her eyes to meet the warrior’s. The blonde bangs hid the wheat-colored brows for another moment as the two friends smiled together and turned to their food. When she had sampled the steaming mixture, and reacted agreeably to the satisfying taste, Xena caught the bard’s eyes again.
"The bartender almost didn’t let me pay for this ale, either, but I convinced him that you wouldn’t approve of the town going that far." She watched the girl’s hesitant reaction.
"Musaeus must have really impressed the Elders with your talents, huh?"
Gabrielle swallowed heavily and not just because she had a rather large spoonful of stew in her mouth. She centered her attention on the bowl in front of her for a moment, then raised her eyes to meet the warrior’s steady gaze. She could see her friend’s impeccable instincts sensing her uneasiness. The bard induced an innocent smile and met the knowing blue eyes with a confident air.
"I told you he had a crush on me," she told the warrior nervously. "I guess he exaggerated a little, to get them to finance this ... project." She waited, noticing the subtle change that flickered in the clear, blue eyes. "No harm done, right?" the girl said, her voice wavering slightly. "We just get a free room. What’s wrong with that?" she finished lamely, shrugging her shoulders to show her lack of concern at the warrior’s statement. She took a small drink from the mug to cover her tenseness.
Gabrielle turned her attention back to her food. "This stew is really good, isn’t it?" she said, her tone overly sincere. She scooped up another spoonful and grinned around the bulging mouthful. The warrior’s quiet stare caused the girl to shift her focus away from the knowing eyes and back to the bowl of stew. The two women finished their meal in silence. A few minutes later, Xena drained the tankard, stood up and deposited a number of dinars on the table. Then she turned toward the little bard.
"Well, I expect you’ll want to get some rest so you can get started bright and early, right?" she said, her blue gaze slightly teasing on the young face. The girl answered the playful comment with a warm grin. She retrieved her staff from the floor and rose to follow the warrior across the tavern.
"Very funny, my warrior friend," the girl chuckled to the warrior’s back.
When they passed through the archway into the hall leading to the sleeping rooms, Xena gently directed her small friend toward the room they’d been assigned. She opened the door, smiling gently at the girl’s reaction to the rather plush character of their lodgings. Gabrielle looked around the chamber, mouth open and wide eyes clearly overwhelmed. The warrior gently nudged the bard out of the doorway, closed the door and held her position against the wooden panel, inwardly enjoying the girl’s astounded observation of their accomodations.
"Hoooly mother of Zeus," the bard said breathlessly. The green eyes slowly swept the candle-lit interior again. Finally, the little blonde turned to meet the blue eyes of her friend. She closed her mouth rather abruptly and gulped. The unexpected sound of the warrior’s quiet laugh brought a broad smile to the young face.
"Well, whatever Musaeus told them," the warrior said striding away from the door, "he obviously convinced them that the ‘lady bard’ deserves the best."
Xena glided across the room and gingerly relieved the bard of her staff, turning to place the wand in the corner of the room. She casually sat down on the wooden chair, crossed her arms over her waist, stretched her long legs out in front of her and resumed her observance of the little bard’s slow inspection of the deluxe quarters. After another moment, the green eyes settled on the blue gaze of the woman in the chair.
"Wow," the bard said softly. "This is some room, isn’t it?" She focused on the oversized bed and, after favoring her friend with a childlike grin, crossed the room and launched herself unceremoniously onto the center of the mattress. The warrior’s smile widened as the girl’s delighted giggle floated up from the coverlet. The bard sighed loudly, drawing both hands
behind her head and crossing her ankles. She turned an adorable smile toward her friend.
"And they wouldn’t let us pay for this?" she asked the warrior. The leather-clad form in the chair shook her head and the little bard gazed up at the ceiling over the bed. "Remind me to thank Musaeus for arranging this," the girl chuckled, wiggling comfortably on the wide pallet.
The warrior watched her young friend’s pleasure for a moment before rising to travel the short distance to the bed. She picked up one small foot, pulled off the leather boot and dropped it onto the floor, beside the bed. While she had undressed the other foot, she cast a parental gaze at the twinkling green eyes.
"Enjoy this while you can, little bard," the tall woman said, sitting down next to the little form and pulling both bare feet onto her lap. She gave the bard an indulgent look. "Well, I guess you’ve earned it," she told the cherished face, "with all the things you’ve had to put up with lately." The blue eyes returned the warm look shining in the emerald pools. "So, like I said, enjoy." Xena’s heart thumped at the understanding and returned affection in the soft, green gaze.
"However," the warrior said, pointedly dispelling the hypnotic effect of the girl’s stare. "I would suggest you get into your sleeping shift before you fall asleep right here." She took a tight grip on one small foot resting on her knee and wickedly drew one finger over the bare sole, causing a squeal from the little bard and a quick shift in the girl’s position. With that, the warrior stood up and began loosening the ties on her leathers.
Chapter Four ~~~
The next morning, after they had consumed a very tasty and quite filling breakfast, the warrior walked beside the little bard toward the small hut that housed the restoration project. She had agreed to at least have a look at what the young blonde would be working on and the girl’s enthusiasm had, as usual, undermined the tall woman’s disinterest. She had to admit it to herself; the precise nature of the scrolls needing attention really didn’t matter to her, but the fact that their existence instilled such concern in the little bard did.
So, during the short distance to the little hut, the warrior made a concerted effort to keep her boredom under control and give the proposed undertaking its rightful consideration. In other words, she had decided to fake it, if necessary, and let her best friend know she had her support, if not her unlimited attention.
Gabrielle chattered joyfully during the short walk, regaling her friend with the many possible chances of new knowledge available to her during the upcoming days. Xena nodded appropriately while her blue eyes scanned the assorted buildings and shops in the town, mentally plotting how she would spend her own time during the next few days.
The warrior consoled herself with the realization that, while her companion would be occupied with the scrolls, there would be some welcome relaxation accessible to her, as well. As the little blonde’s excited ramblings tumbled around her, Xena’s mind turned inward again. A quiet, knowing smile emerged across the stoic face.
‘Since when have I been so concerned with ‘down time’?’ she mused, glancing down affectionately at the young woman striding next to her. ‘She’s given me that, too,’ the tall woman thought. ‘One of the many ways she soothes my heart.’
When they had reached the little hut, Gabrielle lifted the latch on the worn, wooden door, surveyed the musty interior and beckoned for the warrior to follow. Once inside, the bard busied herself with opening the shutters on the windows, filling the little structure with the morning’s light, while the warrior studied the rolls of parchment laid in neat rows on the table, turning next to the tall, wide shelves of books lining the room.
Xena turned toward the bard as the girl came to stand next to her. The bright sparkle in the green eyes brought a smile to the warrior’s smooth face. The little blonde gently unrolled one of the scrolls on the table, holding the parchment flat and turned to her tall friend.
"See what I mean?" the girl asked as Xena stepped closer to the table. The blue eyes scanned the soiled parchment, recognizing the signs of decay and deterioration mentioned by the bard.
"Yes," the warrior said. "You were right. They really need work." She focused on the little bard’s excited expression. Gabrielle released the scroll and reached for another. The edge of the second scroll crumbled in her fingers spraying fragile pieces and puffs of dusty fragments across the table.
"Oh!" the bard barked, pulling her hands back surprised. She turned to the warrior. "And some of them are in worse shape than others," the girl joked, brushing her hands together. Xena put a reassuring hand on the bard’s shoulder.
"Looks like you two have your work cut out for you, all right," she said. She cast another look around the small hut, her gaze taking in the additional scrolls draped over various pieces of furniture and laid out on the floor. She crossed the room and carefully inspected one of the scrolls hanging over the back of a chair, then turned back to the bard.
"Try linseed oil," she said quietly. "mixed with a little olive pulp." She slid her fingers lightly over the stained parchment. "It might take off the mildew and leave the writing."
Gabrielle smiled as she stepped toward her friend. "I was going to ask you about that. I remember you mentioned it worked on some old battle maps, wasn’t it?" She saw the tall woman’s abashed expression and put a small hand on the warrior’s leather cuff.
"Thanks for the hint," the girl said, smiling warmly at the self-conscious face. The warrior’s grateful smile met the understanding in the girl’s steady gaze. "And look at all the maps and drawings here," Gabrielle said, cleverly changing the subject. Her open arms indicated the many rows of materials. She touched one wooden shelf respectfully, turning an animated grin toward the warrior’s indulgent smile.
"We sure won’t be wanting for references or historic particulars, will we?" The bard’s grin widened as she moved back to stand next to her friend.
The warrior shook her head slowly, smiling warmly at the bard’s sparkling expression. "No, you sure won’t," Xena answered, enjoying the joy in the green gaze. She laid an affectionate hand on the little blonde’s shoulder. The tall woman straightened and stepped toward the door of the hut.
"Well, good luck. I’m sure you’ll keep me posted on your progress," she quipped, the small grin returning to the bronze face. She stopped abruptly, took a quick breath and turned back toward the little bard.
"Oh, by the way," the warrior said, drawing a small bundle out of the leather cuff mounted on one arm. "I thought you could use this," the tall woman said. She shyly handed the little package to the bard, her blue eyes darting only momentarily to the young blonde’s face.
Gabrielle giggled openly as she took the package and glanced questioningly at her friend’s disconcerted face. "What’s this?" she asked. As the bard opened the parcel, the tall woman covertly watched the curious expression. The girl’s grin faded quietly when the unexpected gift emerged from it’s wrapping. She raised wide green eyes to the warrior then looked back down at the woman’s offering.
"A new quill point," the bard said quietly. "When did you ...?" the girl began, meeting the warm gaze in the deep blue eyes. The girl studied the shiny instrument for a moment, then returned the warrior’s loving gaze.
"I found it last week, when we were in Leska," the lean woman said. "I’ve been waiting for a good time to give it to you." The golden face softened as tears glistened in the green eyes. "So, when you got the message from Musaeus ...."
The little bard quickly stepped next to the tall warrior and wrapped her arms around the woman’s waist. Xena returned the embrace, waiting patiently until the young woman ended the hug and stood back. The warrior gazed warmly into the shining face.
"It’s beautiful," the bard said haltingly. "Thank you." The girl gently ran a finger over the bright new tool. She put one small hand on the warrior’s arm as another mischievous smile lit the soft face. "You sneak!" she chortled, poking the tall woman playfully. "Stone silent about it, as usual." She looked down at the quill point again, then back up at the clear blue eyes. "You’re sure good at keeping a secret!" The warrior touched the young face with her fingertips. She returned the girl’s smile.
"Just trying to help out my best friend," she replied, softly. Finally Xena turned and strode toward the door.
"So, have fun. By the way, where’s Musaeus, anyway?" she asked, as the bard carefully re-wrapped the new writing tip and placed it carefully next to the quill pen on the table.
The bard’s attention returned to her friend’s face. "Gee, I dunno," the girl said a bit confused. "Oh, well, he’ll be along any minute, I’m sure. He’s as anxious as I am to get started." Gabrielle crossed the room and stood next to the departing warrior.
"You going to be all right all by yourself today?" the bard queried innocently, trying in vain to submerge a charming grin. "Think you can stay out of trouble?"
The warrior’s eyebrow rose quickly and the grin she’d worn so recently faded as she trained ‘the look’ at the bard’s self-satisfied smirk.
"Ha, ha," the tall woman growled, tousling the bard’s blonde hair. "See you later," she said and smoothly left the hut. Gabrielle watched the warrior head across the town square, then turned back to the scrolls on the table.
Chapter Five ~~~
Xena spent the next few days occupied with the many incidental tasks that, as result of the women’s constant travel, had gone wanting in recent weeks. The warrior had decided that, since Gabrielle would be so involved with the restoration of the scrolls during their stay, she could handle those simple maintenance duties which the girl normally fulfilled so efficiently.
She’d made a mental list the first night as she’d drifted off to sleep listening to the bard’s quiet, contented little snore. The warrior had trained her eyes fondly on the small, sleeping form next to her before finally closing the brilliant blues to enjoy the first unguarded, relaxed sleep they’d had in a very long time.
The list included the ragged seams on one side of the saddlebags that needed repair, two of their blankets really needed to be replaced, she could always use a new whetstone for sharpening her sword, and there was a torn spot on her leathers that would soon require immediate attention in order to avoid a possibly embarrassing event in the very near future. Xena had also decided to explore the forest surrounding the town to replenish the supply of herbs carried in her medicine pouch.
The most pressing item on the agenda, however, remained Argo’s new shoes. So, as a result, on the second morning after their arrival, Xena found herself leaning against the rails of the fence in the stable yard, enjoying a ripe, red apple that had been supplied by the bartender as she watched the blacksmith efficiently shape and trim the metal appliances for the palomino’s feet. Xena was impressed by the tradesman’s assuredness and care.
While the smithy filed and pounded, the two engaged in a rather stilted conversation with the warrior providing her usual economic brand of response. Even though her participation in the condensed discussion clearly depicted her as less than eager to volunteer more than the most necessary information, the man had sustained a friendly, yet not intrusive, stream of dialogue during his labors.
At the same time, the smithy had managed his own veiled study of the woman warrior. He had heard the many stories of her escapades, and of the many conquests inflicted by her now-disbanded army. Yet, he had also been struck by the more recent tales of how she had rejected that violent life to turn her attention, and her talents, toward defending those in need, now becoming known as a champion of the just, more deserving cause. And he had watched the woman tend to her horse; there was a gentleness in her treatment and a genuine devotion between the warrior and the mare. The blacksmith had always subscribed to the opinion that, if a person treated their animals with respect and affection, they couldn’t be all that bad.
The muscled worker plunged the glowing horseshoe into the water barrel and wiped his glistening face as a cloud of hissing steam rose from the vat. He shoved the handkerchief in a back pocket and, using a large pronged tool, pulled the new appliance out of the water, examining it carefully. He carried the shoe to the anvil in the center of the working area, raised the large steel hammer and began to shape the iron device. Xena listened to the steady clanging that rang from the hammer’s blows and observed the smithy’s skilled manipulation of the steel. She had watched enough blacksmiths to recognize an accomplished craftsman when she saw one, and this was a man who truly took pride in his work.
After banging the shoe a few more times, the blacksmith rubbed his calloused palm over the edges, put the hammer down and walked slowly toward the waiting mare. Argo cast a disinterested glance in the man’s direction as he raised one of her hind feet, pulled the hoof between his knees and held the shoe in position to check it’s placement. After a moment of attentive scrutiny, the smithy looked up at the warrior’s observant face.
"She’s got a split starting here," he told the woman. Xena pushed away from the fence rail she’d been leaning against and bent to examine the hoof secured between the smithy’s legs.
She could easily see the red cut in the soft center of the frog on Argo’s foot. It was not a serious problem yet, but one the warrior knew could become a dangerous injury if left unattended.
"Yeah, you’re right," she told the smithy. "What do you suggest we do for it?"
The man released the animal’s foot and Argo lowered her hoof to the ground. As he stood up straight, an unexpected grin lit the man’s rugged, tanned face.
"We?" he quipped, pulling the handkerchief out again and wiping his strong hands.
The warrior found herself returning the man’s smile. The raven head tilted as she met the genuine gaze in the smithy’s dark eyes. "OK, what can you do for her?"
The blacksmith turned back to the golden steed and ran a weathered hand along the mare’s sinewy neck. "She’s a healthy, well-tended animal," the man said, glancing quickly at the warrior. "I think a little poultice and some moss will take care of it." The man turned again to the tall leather-clad woman. "I hear you’re going to be in town for a while," he said, returning the cloth to his pocket.
The warrior’s eyebrows lifted slightly. She glanced down at the partially-eaten apple in her hand to cover her uneasiness. After a moment, she returned the man’s gaze. It was then she noticed that, for a change, she had to look up to meet his eyes.
"It’s a small village," the smithy said amicably. "We don’t get many visitors who stay for more than a night or two." He watched the warrior’s reaction. "You and the little bard are a bit more famous than we’re used to, tho’," he told the tall woman, his warm smile softening his words. He watched her shake her head slightly before training a guarded eye on the town square.
Xena’s jaw tightened for an instant before she glanced back to the man’s open expression. Her gut feeling about the smithy was that he was an honest man of quiet strength, and not one likely to waste time and effort on petty gossip. She decided to trust her own instincts in the matter.
The smithy extended a muscled arm toward the tall, slender form in leather. "Enoch," he said, his eyes steady on hers.
Xena took the arm in a solid grasp. "Xena," she responded, returning the look.
"Yes, I know," the smithy joked. His smile spread easily at the tall woman’s sheepish expression. "And the little bard is Gabrielle, right?"
The warrior nodded shyly. The man released her arm.
"So, what does all this mean to my horse?" Xena asked, meeting the mischievous twinkle in the gentle, brown gaze.
Enoch crossed his arms over his wide chest and settled back easily into a wide stance. "I’ll pack the foot tonight," he told her. "Then I’d suggest you let her pad heal for a day or two, just to be sure it doesn’t open again." He turned again to the mare standing relaxed at the fence post. Then he turned back to the warrior.
"I think that should do it," the smithy said, training a cordial smile at the blue eyes. "I’ll keep an eye on it while she’s here. Agreed?"
Xena nodded. "Sounds like a good idea," she told the man. She walked over to the mare and held the rest of the apple under the horse’s chin. After a short sniff, Argo gently took the apple from the woman’s open palm and crunched the fruit happily. The warrior turned back to the blacksmith.
"I’ll pull the other shoes while her foot heals," the smithy said. "May as well check them all, while I’m at it."
Xena nodded in agreement, then reached into the belt of her leathers. "How much do I owe you?" she began, then stopped when she saw the man’s raised hand.
"We’ll talk about that when I get the shoes back on," Enoch chortled, again surprising the warrior with an easy grin. The warrior shoved the coins back into her belt and patted the mare’s thick neck.
"All right, then," she said to the smithy. "I’ll leave her in your hands." She extended her arm, but the man took her hand instead. The warrior’s slight tenseness seemed unnoticed by the muscular tradesman. He grasped her hand firmly, then released it. The warrior drew her hand back, a trifle disconcerted by the man’s attention.
"If you need a mount while she’s healing, just ask," the man said to the warrior’s blue gaze. "I have a number of a good breed. Feel free to take your pick."
"Thanks, I’ll remember that," Xena told him. She stepped away from the smithy and turned again to the town’s buildings. "I’ll check on her tonight," she said, moving away. "Thanks again."
The smithy nodded, waved and walked toward the big horse. As the warrior glanced back, she saw the man gather the reins and lead Argo into the stable again.
Xena lengthened her stride as she walked away from the smithy’s area. When she had traveled a few dozen paces, she slowed her pace and blinked in consternation. ‘What is going on here?’ she thought, bemused. The dark head shook slightly. ‘Must be the moon,’ the tall woman muttered, thrusting her hands on her slender hips. She scoffed at her own confusion, then continued on her path toward the tanner’s shop.
‘It’s your fault, little bard,’ the warrior mused, affectionately. ‘You’re turning me into a romantic, for sure.’ She smiled softly at the thought of the bard’s certain reaction to the recent event ... then decided maybe she wouldn’t share the episode, after all.
‘Like he said,’ Xena thought wickedly, ‘it’s a small village.’ She stopped at the tanner’s shop and strode through the door.
Chapter Six ~~~
In truth, Gabrielle would have been totally unimpressed by the warrior’s vaguely romantic experience. She had been much too busy making a determined effort at trying to induce a more serious attitude in her fellow bard. Musaeus seemed equally resolved toward convincing the little blonde that their concentration on the scrolls need not occupy all of their time together. It was an intention considered highly unsuitable by the little ‘lady bard’, and it was not the first time in recent days that she’d been moved to convey that opinion.
"Musaeus," Gabrielle said impatiently, sending a displeased scowl in the young man’s direction. "We need to find geographic evidence to the country mentioned in this one." The girl gestured pointedly to the scroll secured on the wide table, her brows furrowed under the blonde bangs. "I thought you were looking that up."
The young man lounging in the straight-backed chair across the room grinned at the little bard’s peeved expression. He twirled a piece of straw absently in his fingers, and looped one long leg over the arm of the chair.
"I did," he told the vexed little blonde. "I put the book ..." he twisted lazily. "... over there," he said, pointing the straw stick toward the opposite end of the table. Gabrielle turned toward the open volume an arm’s length from her, quickly scanned the pages and returned an aggravated gaze to the young man’s smirk.
"That’s not the right one," she told him. "This one refers to Aeneas," the girl said, her voice gruff. "We need the one that talks about Orion. Are you going to find it or not?"
Musaeus sat up quickly, an animated grin on his handsome face. He left the chair and literally bounded across the room to stand next to the little blonde. He playfully took both her hands and pulled her toward his gleeful face.
"Let’s go on a picnic!" he bubbled to the bard’s helpless giggle. "It’s still warm enough and the meadow smells so wonderful these days." Gabrielle extracted her hands and put a reproving hand on the young man’s shoulder. Her casual tone was betrayed by the bright blush coloring her soft face.
"Musaeus!" the little blonde laughed. "You’re hopeless." She gently pushed the fellow away and turned back to the scroll on the table. She pressed her lips together to combat the unnerving effects of Musaeus’ hand on her waist. Her hands clenched in a reflex when he brushed his lips to the back of her neck.
Instantly, the little blonde spun out of the unwanted embrace and leveled an angry glare at the young man’s satisfied expression. Gabrielle quietly clasped the fellow’s thumb and nimbly bent the appendage back against his wrist. The boy’s smug smirk faded immediately and his knees buckled under the sharp, piercing pain. A trace of the warrior’s feral grin floated across the little bard’s face as her juvenile aggressor reacted to her painful grip.
After a moment, Gabrielle released Musaeus’ thumb and smiled innocently at the young man’s humiliated look. She let him recover a bit before training a warning sneer at the boyish face.
"Private property," she told the young man meaningfully. "And you don’t have visiting privileges."
Musaeus gulped quietly, rubbing his hand briskly to relieve the stiffness still present. He backed away from the little blonde, a small level of fear behind the soft brown eyes. "Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you," the young man mumbled. He focused on his wounded wrist for a moment, then raised apologetic eyes to meet the bard’s green gaze.
Gabrielle studied the freckled face. The girl’s gentle nature began to tug at her conscience. She smiled regretfully and put a forgiving hand on the young man’s arm.
"Ok, let’s just forget the incident," she told him. "I didn’t mean to overreact, either. You kind of surprised me, that’s all." The little blonde watched the boy’s face brighten. She patted the young man’s arm affectionately.
"But, we really do need to get back to work, OK?" she said, raising one eyebrow in a good imitation of the warrior’s ‘look’.
Musaeus nodded and shook his hand briskly. The little bard saw the mischief return to the boy’s eyes. "But I want you to show me how you did that," he said boyishly. "That could come in handy sometime."
Gabrielle’s cheerful laugh dispelled the remaining tension that had settled over the little hut. She shook her head and clapped one small hand to her forehead. The bard gazed tolerantly at the young male face, then turned back to the table again. "Hopeless!" she scoffed as she closed the large volume and stepped to return it to the shelves across the room.
The next night, as the warrior and the little bard sat in the tavern, partaking of portions of what the waitress had termed the ‘special of the day’, Xena cast a concerned gaze at the faint signs of fatigue showing on the young bard’s face. She studied the sweet countenance, trying to decide first, if the signs were serious enough to mention outloud, and secondly, if she wanted to risk intruding on the little blonde’s personal domain.
The warrior battled the same dilemma that had challenged her on a regular basis lately as her instincts to ‘protect and defend’ the young blonde across from her came into direct conflict with her steadfast intentions to respect the girl’s desire to handle her own conflicts and make decisions based on her own best judgment.
The bard continued chewing, but the green eyes seemed trained on a distant, private subject. Xena waited to see if her friend was inclined to share whatever it was that had rendered her so unusually silent, thus affording the warrior an opportunity to help ease the bard’s obvious distress. The tall woman’s protective urges intensified when the bard swept a hand across her tired face.
"Gabrielle?" the warrior asked quietly. The bard’s green gaze slowly traveled to meet the blue eyes. "Are you OK?"
For an instant, the tall woman read a trace of tedium behind the slightly distracted gaze. The bard’s rueful smile incited the warrior’s apprehension. When the little blonde placed a comforting hand on the woman’s leather cuff, the warrior’s stoic face focused on the girl’s shaky grin.
"I’m sorry," the bard said to the deep blue eyes of her friend. "I guess I’ve been a little preoccupied tonight." The warrior covered the little hand with her strong one. Gabrielle pulled her hand away, concentrating for a moment on her half-eaten meal. "This is turning into more of a ... task than I thought it would be." She raised her eyes to meet the warrior’s and the leather-clad woman saw the uneasiness behind the emerald gaze. Finally the little blonde pushed the plate away and massaged her forehead vigorously with her fingers.
"Maybe I’m just more tired than I thought," the girl said, threading her fingers together. She looked into the warrior’s intense gaze. "I’m OK, really," the girl said to her friend’s look of concern. Xena returned the fragile smile, nonetheless noticing the considerable amount of food still remaining on the little bard’s plate.
She forced a lightness into her tone. "You must be tired," the warrior said, motioning toward the nearly-full plate. "I’ve never seen you send back that much." The little bard’s laugh was genuine, if not forceful. She gave the warrior a grateful glance.
"C’mon," Xena said, "time for you to get some rest." The warrior stood up, paid for their meal and gently pulled the little bard up from the bench. The girl rose stiffly, took the extended hand and let the tall woman direct her toward the room with the large bed.
Chapter Seven ~~~
As Xena approached the stable the next morning, she felt an odd sense of buoyancy invade her senses, then found the feeling soon replaced by a nervous expectancy. She carried her leathers and the empty saddlebags over one arm, and held a large piece of carrot in her free hand. The carrot was a treat for Argo who, the woman conceded, was handling her forced inactivity much better than her mistress was.
The mare’s foot was healing nicely, but the medicinal wrapping had postponed her rider’s enjoyment of the long, spirited, uninhibited ride she’d been so heartily anticipating since their arrival in the small village. The warrior had to admit the smithy’s remedy had proved quite worthy; but it still meant she’d had to find some other ways of filling her time while the bard tended to her project.
Yet, Xena told herself proudly, she had managed to take care of all the items on her ‘list’; she’d bartered, and quite successfully, for a pair of new blankets for their travel gear, and had arranged for the tanner to repair both the saddlebags and her ‘leather suit’, as Gabrielle had a habit of calling the warrior’s normal, daily clothing. On the afternoon that she had contracted for his services, Xena had told the man she would leave both items with him the next day. When he had cast an impatient look at her reluctance, she had cleared up his confusion in typically concise fashion.
"I can’t very well leave my leathers today, can I?" she had asked pointedly. When the man’s face remained blank, she had gestured toward her own attire. "I’m wearing them."
The merchant’s abashment had become evident at once. He laughed brightly and cast a self-effacing smile at the warrior’s slightly irritated expression.
"Well, would be a bit awkward, at that." he had admitted, pulling sheepishly on his ear.
"That’ll be fine then, ma’am’. I’ll look for them in the morning." Xena had been caught slightly offguard by being addressed as "ma’am", but the tanner’s open, friendly manner had served to dispel her wariness.
That was why the tall, slender form entering the stable on this morning was clothed in a soft, belted tunic, short, wool breeches and tall boots as she carried the leather outfit, the saddlebags and a carrot for her recovering horse.
Argo whinnied a welcome when the warrior arrived at her stall. Xena put down the things in her arms and extended the carrot. The mare’s lips captured the rare treat and the horse began enjoying it with relish. The warrior rubbed the animal’s silky neck, kneading one soft ear with her fingers.
"How’s it goin’, girl?" the warrior crooned, patting the sleek hide. She inclined her head toward the horse’s hind foot, looking closely at the piece of cloth covering Argo’s big hoof. It took only a moment to recognize the smithy’s efficient wrapping; the dressing was positioned in precisely the right place and secured perfectly by a thin length of twine tied around the horse’s leg. Xena could see that Argo was favoring her injured hoof less, even occasionally putting her normal weight on the foot. She smiled approvingly at the improvement.
"I’ll see you later," the warrior told her four-footed companion, turning to pick up the leather articles again. She gave the horse a farewell pat and turned to leave the stable just as the smithy entered the barn. His expression brightened when he recognized the tall woman with the clear, blue eyes. She returned his warm smile shyly.
"Looks much better today," the warrior said. Enoch nodded, his big hands on the corners of his smithy’s apron.
"Yeah, when I checked earlier, the split was healed completely. I was going to unwrap it later today." He gave his attention to the mare’s grateful neigh. "You’re welcome," he said to the golden head. The warrior joined in the gentle laughter. The blacksmith returned his focus to the lean warrior, his eyes traveling quickly over the change in her appearance. The brown eyes settled again on the woman’s blue gaze.
For a moment, the silence in the stable was accentuated by the muted sounds of the activity outside. The warrior blinked to break contact with the man’s intent stare and lowered her gaze to the material in her arms.
"You could probably take her out for a run tomorrow," Enoch said, his deep, clear voice resonating in the open enclosure. "Her foot should be ready. I’ll get those shoes back on first thing in the morning."
"Good," Xena said, taking a slow step toward the open stable door. Then she turned back to the waiting smithy. "But, I will take you up on your offer of another mount in the meantime, if that’s still ...."
"Of course. They’re out back," the man said, moving toward the smaller door in the back of the barn.
"That’s all right," the warrior said, halting his progress. "I have to take these to the tanner and get some lunch with ... the little bard," she explained. "But I’d like to take a ride this afternoon, if I could ..."
Enoch turned to face the tall woman again. "Sure," he said, his smile returning. "You can make your choice then." The sturdy male frame moved back across the barn. He followed the tall woman as she strode toward the wide barn door again.
"Fine, I’ll see you in a while," Xena said. Her eyes lit on the man’s faint scowl. She turned to the tanned face. "Is there a problem?" she asked.
The smithy exhaled roughly and looped his thumbs over the straps that secured his leather apron. He seemed to grapple with a decision before training a sincere gaze at the warrior’s blue eyes. He took another short breath and began.
"The little bard? Gabrielle?" he said, haltingly.
The warrior nodded, a wavering uneasiness beginning in her chest. "Yes, what about her?"
"Well, you can tell me it’s none of my business and you’d be right." The warrior’s eyebrows knit in a confused frown. "But I have a sense that you’re probably a little ... uneasy with the situation, as well, so I’m going to take a chance." He waited for the tall woman to respond.
Xena saw the sincerity in the man’s gaze, but his muddled statements were clouding her perception. She took a step closer to the tall, rugged smithy and submerged her impatience with an open smile.
"I’m sorry. You lost me. What situation?" She watched the man’s face.
"The situation with your little friend and that young man, Musaeus." The warrior’s jaw tightened as the clear blue eyes took on a grayish hue. Her thin smile faded immediately as she focused on the blacksmith’s face.
"Exactly what are you suggesting? As far as I know, there is no ‘situation’ between my friend and this young man. Are you saying ....?"
"No, no," Enoch said, his big hands open in front of him. "I’m not suggesting anything ... unseemly. She appears to be a fine young woman," he said, aware of the hardness in the tall woman’s expression. The man relaxed gratefully as he saw some of the stiffness leave the warrior’s body. He paused a moment, then continued.
"That’s my point, you see? If she were my friend, I’d make sure she didn’t get too involved with that particular youngster. He’s not exactly ... trustworthy."
Xena studied the tanned, mature face. Her senses sent her a solid message about the man’s honorable intentions. Yet, her instincts told her the subject was one that required she keep her own reactions as objective as possible, even though her first instinct was to wholeheartedly agree with the man. She took a short breath and relaxed her jaw.
"A bit of a ... charmer, is he?" she asked, keeping her tone light. The smithy’s eyebrows rose as his brown gaze locked with the warrior’s. He returned the woman’s subtle grin.
"If she were my daughter, I’d be more than a little worried," the man said evenly. "He has a habit of getting others into a tight spot while he escapes wearing an innocent smile." The smithy watched the warrior’s reaction. "But like I said, it’s really none of my business."
Xena took a deep, calming breath. She saw the man’s honest expression, taking note of his fatherly reference. The fact that he had verbalized her own impressions made her assign a more-than-ordinary credence to his comments. She felt the tenseness in her stance subside.
"No, it’s very kind of you to be so concerned about her. Even though, we are complete strangers." She favored the man with a gentle smile. "I appreciate you being honest. But as I keep telling myself, she is a grown woman. And I know her well enough to believe she’ll make the right decision, if that ‘situation’ arises." The smithy’s face creased in a friendly grin.
"I will, however, stay ... aware," the warrior continued softly. "And I have my own reasons for doing that."
Enoch’s warm smile grew wider as he gazed down into the warrior’s blue eyes. He laughed softly and raised one big hand to massage the back of his head. Then he returned the woman’s expression with a knowing glint.
"Well, she couldn’t ask for better than that, I’ll venture." The soft brown eyes made the warrior relax even more. She extended a hand and the smithy took it firmly. After another quiet moment, Xena withdrew her hand and stepped back.
"I’ll be back later for that ride. See you then." The smithy nodded and the warrior left the stable and headed for the tanner’s shop, the man’s words still echoing clearly in her mind.
After she had left the leather items with the tanner, Xena returned to the Inn. She halfway expected to find a hungry little bard waiting for her in the tavern, since the hour was close enough to lunchtime for the girl’s internal clock to suggest she seek nourishment. After quickly scanning the small dining area and not finding the small form of her friend, the warrior decided to go back to their room for her medicine pouch and the bag she used to store the healing herbs. She would simply take her ride into the forest a little earlier than planned.
Xena retrieved the items from the sleeping room. As she turned to leave, her eyes lingered on the scroll lying on the table against the wall. She recognized it as one the bard had been working on the night before. The warrior’s mind replayed the previous evening’s events, remembering the bard’s careful examination of the transcribed piece and the painstaking attention the girl had expended making detailed notes on the written words contained there.
The tall woman also remembered the sight of the exhausted little blonde, her chin supported on her fist, fighting heartily against the sleep that threatened to overtake her which, in turn had prompted her lanky friend to suggest that further work on the scroll could wait until morning. The warrior’s proposal was followed by the girl’s quiet, but firm, refusal to take the woman’s advice.
The warrior’s lips curved in a smile as she recalled turning toward the lithe form a while later to find the blonde head bobbing helplessly in fatigue, and her decision to smoothly sweep the small form out of the chair and deposit it in the large, beckoning bed. The girl had protested only until the warmth and comfort of the pallet had outweighed her slight resentment of the warrior’s custodial attitude. After a few moments, the green eyes had closed and the compact form had relaxed into sleep.
Xena stood quietly, her fingers lightly touching the roll of parchment. After a moment, her faint smile grew as she made a decision. Moving quickly, the warrior secured the sheath holding her dagger to the belted tie of the tunic, gathered the medicine pouch and the herb bag, and slipped the scroll under one arm. The blue eyes scanned the area, then the tall woman left the room, closing the wooden door behind her. When she entered the tavern, she crossed to the bar for a short conference with the round bartender. A few minutes later, she left the Inn and headed across the square toward the little, private hut.
Chapter Eight ~~~
Gabrielle sat back in the hard chair and raised her arms high over her head. After executing a long and loudly-vocal stretching maneuver, she dropped her arms, pulled her head sharply to one side, then dropped it to the other side, trying to relieve some of the tightness in her aching shoulders. After repeating the process a few more times, the muscles along her neck seemed to relax somewhat and she reached to knead the remaining stiffness with her left hand. As she lowered her chin to help with the process, her eyes came to rest on the quill pen in her other hand, the new tip gleaming brightly in the sunshine cascading through the open window.
The green eyes shone warmly as the girl’s thoughts turned to the warrior who had provided the new point. A soft smile lit the gentle face as she remembered the woman’s embarrassment when revealing the gift. The bard shook her head slightly, as usual convinced that her best friend really didn’t realize how truly unique she actually was, and how such small, gentle gestures, as random and unexpected as they always were, did more to secure a place in the little bard’s heart than all the heroic deeds and accomplishments she had seen the woman perform ever would.
‘She still believes she’s not good enough to deserve respect and devotion’, the little blonde thought. ‘She believes she’ll never deserve those things again.’
Gabrielle eventually became aware that Musaeus was speaking to her. She pulled her awareness back to the little hut and the young man staring at her from the other side of the table.
"I’m sorry, Musaeus," she said to the young male face. "What did you say?"
Musaeus’ gaze was gently teasing on the lovely, open expression. He tilted his head slightly and leaned easily on the table.
"I was just asking you what you were thinking about," he grinned. "Whatever it was, you seemed to be enjoying yourself."
A mild blush warmed the bard’s face. She straightened in the chair and turned a decisive glance at the boy’s brown eyes. The verdant pools now blazed in a business-like style.
"I, ah ...." the bard stammered, then caught hold of her feelings. "I was thinking that we’re not making much progress here, today. Maybe we should just wrap things up for now and get back to this first thing tom ..."
Musaeus moved swiftly around the table to stand at the side of Gabrielle’s chair. He touched the girl’s slim, tanned arm solicitously, resting his other hand on the back of the chair behind her shoulder.
"I’m sorry," he crooned, his expression penitent. "I didn’t mean anything, it’s just that ..." The boy’s words faded.
"Just that what?" Gabrielle prompted, facing the freckled face. "What are you trying to ask me?"
The young man backed away from the girl in the chair, his face showing a sincere degree of regret. He lowered his gaze from hers, then hesitantly met the green pools again. He leaned casually on the side of the table and stroked the worn surface with his thumb.
"Well," Musaeus began, obviously choosing his words carefully. "Your friend?" he said, haltingly. "The warrior ... person?" Gabrielle’s jaw tightened instinctively.
"Yes?" the bard said, her tone crisp. "What about her?"
The young man’s gaze darted to meet the bard’s, then swept away. He focused on the path traveled by his thumb. His smile was forced, his tone almost sullen. Finally Musaeus took a short breath and brought his eyes to meet the bard’s sharp gaze.
"She’s intimidating and rather formidable, and all that but ..." he stopped again. Gabrielle’s patience had finally ebbed. She turned herself fully toward the stammering young man, her back rigid and her voice firm. She covered the young bard’s tracking hand, bringing an end to the rubbing motion of his thumb.
"But what??" the little blonde said. "You can be plainer than that, Musaeus," the girl barked. "What is it you want to know, exactly?"
Musaeus noticed the impatience in the green eyes and the blatant intolerance in her manner. He knew he had stumbled onto hallowed ground, but his masculine priorities were at stake here. He summoned his best captivating face and forged ahead.
"I don’t think she likes me much," Musaeus began, watching the little bard’s face closely. "And she seems so dour and uninteresting." He paused when he saw the girl’s chin rise stubbornly. The young man decided to proceed, nonetheless.
"Why do you stay with her? You could be earning pouches of dinars as a bard, you know?" The young face was earnest, almost childlike. Gabrielle stared at the youthful countenance, more surprised now than angry.
"I’ve seen the way you tell a story, Gabrielle," Musaeus said, his voice warming to the subject. "You hold an audience spellbound. I’ve never seen anyone pull them in like you do. It’s ... like magic!"
The little blonde sat back in the chair, amazed at the young man’s announcement. She blinked in wonder at the juvenile attitude evident in the young man’s perception. She raised one hand to her forehead, and closed her mouth which had dropped open in awe.
"You could stay here in Almiros, we could be a team," the young man raved, pacing the room excitedly. "Once we restore these scrolls, people would come ... travelers from all over this part of the country ...." He turned back to the shocked bard. "They’d all want to come and hear you, weaving the tales as only you can."
Gabrielle shook her head to clear her senses. A small, startled laugh bubbled in her as the silliness of the young man’s proposal danced in her mind.
"Musaeus," the little bard giggled, but the young man didn’t hear her.
"Don’t you see?" Musaeus continued, even more excited than before. "You’d be famous in no time!" He swept back to the young woman in the chair. "We could both be famous ... and rich! You’d be ‘The Famous Lady Bard’ and I could be your ... associate."
Gabrielle burst into laughter. Her green eyes danced merrily and she covered her mouth with both hands. After a moment, she tried to contain her amusement and focus on the young man’s animated face. Blinking heavily to clear her vision, she began to recognize the total conviction in Musaeus’ flushed expression. She realized then that he had been completely serious in his suggestion, even though she had honestly assumed the wild pronouncement had been a colossal, expansive joke.
As she regained some control, Gabrielle began to experience her own brand of remorse. She immediately felt sorry for ridiculing the young man’s plan so emphatically. She laid her hand on the boy’s arm and fought strongly to submerge her rampant amusement. When she saw the hurt in her fellow bard’s eyes, the girl’s gentle heart lurched in sympathy and regret.
"Oh, Musaeus," she sputtered helplessly, "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to ...." The bard swallowed hard and wiped her eyes. As she watched the male face pale in disgrace and humiliation, Gabrielle felt even more guilty. She took the young man’s hand and smiled warmly at the crestfallen expression.
"That’s very dear of you," she told him. "But, I couldn’t possibly stay here in Almiros."
The green eyes now sparkled sincerely, her attitude open and genuine. "Xena and I will be leaving as soon as we’re finished here." She tilted her head to capture the young man’s rueful scowl.
"My place is with her," she said, meeting the brown gaze steadily. "We’re ..." The little bard paused, letting her thoughts dwell on the tall, slender warrior to whom she felt such devotion and loyalty. She raised her eyes to meet Musaeus’ again. "That’s the ‘team’ I’m on," the bard said softly. "I’m part of Xena’s team. Do you understand?" The sweet smile brought an answering grin to the young man’s face.
Musaeus studied the soft, open countenance of the girl he so admired. He saw the sincerity in her green eyes and the gentleness in the forthright expression. After a moment, he covered the small hand holding his and returned the warm smile.
"She’s really important to you, isn’t she?" he said. "I can tell you mean a lot to each other."
Gabrielle lowered her eyes and focused on their clasped hands. "She’s very important," the little bard said quietly. She met the young man’s eyes again. "She’s more than my best friend. We’re ... connected, you know? We’re secured to each other." The emerald gaze scanned the young male face. "It’s kind of hard to explain," the girl finished softly, pushing the chair away from the table and getting to her feet.
Musaeus laid his free hand on the little bard’s shoulder. "No, I understand perfectly ... now," he said to the green pools. "I see it clearly in your eyes." He smiled warmly at the bard’s flushed face. The brown eyes grew more serious. "I hope she realizes how lucky she is, too."
Gabrielle’s wide smile brought a friendly grin to the young male face. "Thanks, Musaeus," the little blonde said. The young man gathered the little blonde into a friendly hug and the two friends laughed softly together.
An instant later, Gabrielle heard a knock as a familiar voice called her name. The two bards turned in unison as the door to the hut swung open ... revealing the tall, slender warrior, displaying a blank, amazed expression, a small tray covered with a clean, white napkin in one hand and a soiled scroll of parchment in the other.
Continued in Chapter 9